by Pat Holt

Friday, April 28, 2000:


To New Readers: "Holt Uncensored" is a free online column about books and the book industry written by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic Pat Holt. You can subscribe or "unsubscribe" by clicking here.




I haven't come to Seattle to write about Amazon.com - I'm here to interview Fran Lebowitz onstage for the FoolProof Comedy Arts Festival (more about this later). But it's surprising to see, even on the drive into town, how much Amazon's presence has come to dominate the landscape.

In the last year or so, the company has moved its headquarters from downtown Pioneer Square to the old Veterans Hospital complex on Beacon Hill, where it looms above Interstate 5 like some medieval castle following a Jenny Jones makeover.

With its huge terra cotta office tower on a nine-acre campus of buildings, the company has literally attained the "king of the hill" status that magazine covers have attributed to founder Jeff Bezos for more than five years.

Everywhere you look, Amazon.com seems to set the mood and tone for Seattle's explosive new dot.com economy. The city's tech-startup rate has risen so quickly that Seattle is "on pace to surpass New York this year as the fastest growth region in the country for venture investments," according to PricewaterhouseCoopers venture capital director Kirk Walden.

You can feel that frenzied pace in a Post-Intelligencer interview with Amazon.com's president and CEO Joseph Galli on April 18 http://www.seattlep-i.com/business/amaz181.shtml .

To reporter Kathy Mulady, Galli "sounds like he is strategizing a war" as he talks about "deployment, legions of people going online, plans to enter Europe, global opportunity - and changing the world."

She also observes Galli's dotcom body language: "Anything short of rapid-fire conversation starts his fingers tapping on his conference table, releasing pent-up energy as valuable seconds go to waste.

"He walks fast, talks fast, and finds it convenient that his children live in Baltimore rather than Seattle. He actually gets to see them more often as he wings from coast to coast and to Europe." That's the Amazon.com spirit, Joe!

Bezos says he hired Galli because "we wanted someone who would thrive in an environment of change, who would throw gasoline on a burning fire rather than try to put it out." Another sterling Amazon.com metaphor.

I spend the day nosing around the book community, where rumors about Amazon.com abound. For example:

1) It's said that Amazon sent out a memo that might actually have included the term "sales rep compliance" in which the company's needs for hand-holding - pardon me, service - grow ever more demanding. One alleged order: Publishers' catalogs must be spiralbound, which triggered a rush to Kinko's on both coasts. But Amazon.com is still a seat-of-your-pants sort of business, and many sets of the spiralbound catalogues have been lost.

2) Apparently at least one mainstream publisher has turned its Pacific Northwest sales representative into a full-time Amazon service agent, and others are considering this move. At the same time, cutbacks resulting in the loss of sales reps for many independent bookstores, and promises of "continued telemarketing," have not made anybody happy.

3) Trouble on the hill: Far from seeing its Books division turn a profit at the end of 1999, Amazon.com's bean counters are tiring of the extra labor expenses that have always been unique to the Books department. "Why do we need editors?" they are allegedly asking. "Books should be as easy to buy and sell as chainsaws." Uh-oh. But maybe they have always said that.

(By the way, not a person I talked to believes Amazon.com did turn a profit with its Books division. Great scoffing noises are made when Bezos insists that Books made a profit during his trip to San Francisco to launch the wine shopping line - or when the Wall Street Journal's Kara Swisher said simply, "books are now profitable" without explaining how or why in her Amazon story of 4/24 at http://interactive.wsj.com .

5) Depending on who you talk to, Amazon.com is either closing its Seattle warehouse as an economy move (one day people in Washington will have their books shipped from the closest distribution center - Nevada - like everybody else), OR expanding its book warehouse with an all-new distribution center in nearby Kent. Probably it will do nothing.

All this to say that for the first time, the atmosphere surrounding Amazon.com's headquarters in Seattle - always chaotic to be sure - is a bit iffy, thanks among everything else to less-than-great performances of Amazon stock and specifically its darling, drugstore.com.

At the same time, a sense of calm and fiscal health seems to be shoring up the rest of the book community in Seattle. While San Francisco's book festival is still lurching from underfinancing because of many problems - its insistance on seeking no help from chain bookstores is a big one- the Northwest Bookfest despite many moves in location appears to be rock solid.

According to Bookfest director Kris Molesworth, the fair last year drew 28,000 people, and while admission is free, suggested donations at the door have contributed to over $210,000 for literacy programs over the years. Barnes & Noble and Borders do contribute money to Bookfest, but so do independents like University Book Store, Elliott Bay Book Company, Tower Books (not a chain but a "multiple independent") and others.

Which brings us to Elliott Bay, the independent bookstore that last year was dangerously close to going under, and this year appears to lead the pack in finding a new investor, a new mix of inventory, and a return to trusted bookselling traditions.

Next week: An interview with Rick Simonsen of Elliott Bay; and with Fran Lebowitz, who hasn't published a book in 25 years yet still pulls 'em in.



I don't think I've ever seen anything more hilarious than the botched "youth filters" at America Online.

According to CNET News.com at http://www.news.com/Perspectives/Column/0,176,421,00.html , AOL has set up these filters so parents can restrict their children to "Kids Only" Web sites.

However, CNET News watchdog Brian Livingston discovered an odd little bias operating within the filters that guides America's youth away from "creeping liberalism" and toward increasingly rampant (not his word) conservativism .

For example, writes Livingston, with these filters set up and operating on the family computer:

"Your children can easily view the site of the Republican National Committee, but the Democratic National Committee is blocked.

"Children can call up the conservative Constitution Party and Libertarian Party, both of which are promoting their own U.S. presidential candidates. But if they attempt to view Ralph Nader's Green Party or Ross Perot's Reform Party, they see only a 'not appropriate for children' error.

"AOL's 'Young Teens' filter, designed for older children, allows a few more Web sites to be viewed. The apparent political bias, however, remains the same:

"Sites promoting gun use are available, including Colt, Browning and the National Rifle Association. But prominent gun safety organizations are blocked, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Safer Guns Now and the Million Mom March."

Considering AOL's giant membership, one keeps hoping the whole thing is a huge mistake. There's some hope in Livingston's discovery that "the software firm that produces the filtering rules is The Learning Company, a unit of toymaker Mattel, which the toymaker says it plans to sell off." Maybe that means somebody goofed just as the "unit" fell out of favor, so now some other "unit" will be hired.

However, nobody's owning up to the problem. "AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato said today that he was 'unaware of any conservative bias' in the youth filters used by the service." I love that. All Rich has to do is look at the findings, and he'll SEE the conservative bias. So give it a look, Rich!

Even worse news is next, and it ain't so hilarious: "Surprisingly," Livingston reports, "I found that even those children who were limited to the most restrictive 'Kids Only' filter could, in some circumstances, view sex sites that were recently visited by adults." These aren't just sites that somebody forgot to delete, he adds, but sites that can be stored in a browser's cache memory for weeks.

So good going, AOL. I'm sure the filters will be changed soon to reflect some kind of balance whether anybody admits a problem or not. Fortunately, though, Livingston doesn't want things to end there. He wants to question the use of ANY youth filters at AOL.

"The average child in the United States sees 200,000 killings, stabbings and beatings on television by the age of 18, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics," Livingston writes. "The academy cites numerous scientific studies demonstrating that many children learn violent behavior from shows they watch.

"After a few years of exposure to television, it's hard to imagine that anything on the Internet would be worth filtering out--even if the filters worked."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

J.L. Bell recently wrote wondering if the ABA has issued a subpoena for materials from the chains in their antitrust lawsuit with Borders and Barnes & Noble. Indeed, the ABA has requested hundreds of thousands of documents from the chains. Last year, the chains, in turn, requested documents of the 26 independent bookstore plaintiffs and four "neutral" California independent bookstores (neutral in the sense that, unlike the plaintiffs, they do not currently compete locally against one of the chains).

This new round of subpoena requests seems to target the leadership of the ABA by going after the four members of the ABA executive committee at the time of the ABA board vote to bring the lawsuit against the chains. Bookshop Santa Cruz is one of these new targets, just as Borders is building a superstore just one block away.

Nothing that they are requesting is of any use in their defense, as far as I can tell. It is pure harassment by a couple of $3 billion corporations who believe they can do anything they wish. When it comes down to it, harrassment is harrassment and the timing is unfortunate (or perhaps, fortunate for Borders).

As for J.L. Bell's assessment that the chains' defense is that their practices are normal for retailers - the ABA contends that there are laws that protect us from these chains' business practices and that those practices are not "normal" at all and certainly not "normal" practices for their competitors, the nation's independent booksellers.

Neal Coonerty Bookshop Santa Cruz President-elect, ABA

Dear Holt Uncensored:

A reader wondered whether Borders' subpoenaing Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Neal Coonerty was not fair game in a lawsuit: As an employee of Bookshop Santa Cruz I would like to respond -- but let me stress that I am not a spokesman nor a legal representative. This letter represents only my own thoughts on the matter.

Here's the essential difference between the ABA demanding Borders open all of its records and Borders turning around and doing the same to Bookshop Santa Cruz: Borders is a defendant in a lawsuit alleging hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal deals with the big publishing houses. Neither Coonerty nor his store are plaintiffs or defendants. The actual plaintiff stores have long ago been served and had their records combed through.

My personal feeling is disgust at a chain that is set to open its doors one block away from us next month and happens to level us with a massive demand of time and resources at the same time. I do not look forward to helping lawyers sift through eight years of records for a store that has nothing to do with the lawsuit, as far as I can tell.

Here's a fun factoid: Coonerty was on the ABA board at the time the decision to sue the chains was made, and in a remarkable coincidence, each of the other board members recently had the records of their stores subpoenaed as well. I've always had trouble spelling "harassment" (sp?), but I have a feeling I'm going to get much better at it in the near future.

Asher Brauner Santa Cruz

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding J.L. Bell's letter defending the chains' right to supoena bookstore records, it should be noted that, while the chains have rightly demanded information from lawsuit plaintiffs, at least two stores that are not plaintiffs, including Bookshop Santa Cruz, have also been targeted. Why? Perhaps because they are current or former ABA board members and are being singled out?. There is ample information available from the 26 plaintiff stores without making Bookshop Santa Cruz and others jump through hoops.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: ABA Lawsuit Against Chains

On four separate occasions our independent bookstore has received misshipments of books from a major distributor, Baker & Taylor, containing invoices addressed to Barnes & Noble giving better discounts than our store receives. We ordered the same titles and quantities (mostly ones) to substantiate the discriminatory discount. A representative from Baker & Taylor responded to my complaint that they were "meeting the competition." No other explanation was forthcoming. This is one reason I welcome this lawsuit, which will, hopefully, determine illegal arrangements and force publishers and distributors to give equitable treatment to all book stores.

Nancy Olson Quail Ridge Books Raleigh, North Carolina

Dear Holt Uncensored:

After reading about the porn-junkmail stimulated by the misread "hot uncensored," you can imagine what I began receiving after listing my book, "Boy Into Man" from Transformation Press on the Internet. At the time I was putting the book together, the idea of a double entendre never occurred to naive little me. Thankfully, there's a subtitle ("A Father's Guide To Initiation of Teenage Sons") and the website is very clear as to what the book is about. But, whew!

Bernie Weiner